Brain Imaging Reveals Indicator of Future Behavior Changes for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Brain Imaging Reveals Indicator of Future Behavior Changes for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Posted: January 5, 2016

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When children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can be difficult to predict what that means for their future. Some will achieve high levels of independence in adulthood, but for many, persistent social communication impairments will interfere with daily living skills and limit the behavioral improvements that normally occur during development.

New BBRF-funded research published November 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds an observable marker of these behavioral outcomes in brain scans of autistic individuals taken during late adolescence or early adulthood. The finding could help clinicians identify and offer additional services to autistic individuals who are the most likely to struggle to achieve independence.   

Early language ability, IQ, and the severity of autistic traits at diagnosis all appear to influence behavioral outcomes among people with autism spectrum disorders. Yet, much of the variability in outcomes among affected individuals remains to be explained. The research team wondered whether connectivity patterns in the brains of people with autism would significantly enhance the ability to predict how autistic individuals would function later in life.  The study was led by Dr. Kelly Anne Barnes, Ph.D., a 2012 NARSAD Young investigator grantee, and included, Mark Plitt and Dr. Alex Martin, all at the National Institute of Mental Health.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate what scientists call the “resting-state connectivity” of three brain networks already implicated in autism in people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. This shows the state of brain connections when the subject is not performing an explicit task.

For the 31 participants, all of whom were male, the brain scans were taken during adolescence or early adulthood. Over several years of follow-up, many of the participants displayed significant changes in the ability to relate to others or adapt to new circumstances (adaptive behavior), as measured in clinical assessments. The researchers compared measures of these traits to the network connectivity observed in the brain scans taken at the outset of the study.

They found that connectivity patterns within the three networks—called the salience network, the default-mode network, and the frontoparietal task control network—were sensitive indicators of improvements in adaptive behaviors that occurred on average nearly three years following the scan.

The findings suggest that these networks contribute to behavioral changes that are important in order for autistic individuals to achieve independence in adulthood. Analyzing their connectivity could help clinicians predict outcomes for their patients, the scientists say. Future studies involving larger numbers and more diverse participants, as well as more frequent assessments of behavioral changes, will help scientists understand this relationship more completely.

Read the paper.

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